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Italy and the UAE Chart a New Course

Italy’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ran aground in 2021—the culmination of a series of escalating tit-for-tat rebukes. First, the Italians suspended missile sales to Abu Dhabi on the grounds that Rome wished to address human rights concerns and bring about peace in Yemen. In response, Emirati leaders forced Italian troops to leave the al-Minhad air base in the Emirate of Dubai.

However, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s March 4 visit to Abu Dhabi seems to have granted the bilateral relationship a new lease on life. After meeting with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) at al-Shati Palace in Abu Dhabi, Meloni spoke highly of her country’s relationship with the UAE. “Discussions…went very, very well and we’re going back to a strategic partnership. Italy historically had very strong relations with [the] UAE, which in recent years experienced serious difficulties,” Italy’s Prime Minister told reporters. “I think there is a strong will on both sides to rebuild not just good but excellent relations, a friendship, which I think is very important for our national interest.”

This visit to the UAE was Meloni’s first trip to a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member and her third to an Arab country, following earlier visits to Algeria and Libya. In an interview with Gulf International Forum, Lorena Stella Martini, an advocacy and communications assistant at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that Meloni’s visit to Abu Dhabi only weeks after she traveled to Algiers and Tripoli underscores “the relevance of the UAE as a partner for Rome.” According to Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist who spoke to the Forum, bilateral relations are “now on solid ground” and are “expected to grow stronger in the years to come.”

Global Developments Drive Cooperation

Understanding how Italy and the UAE have moved past their 2021 spat requires taking stock of major international events that have transpired over the past two years. Most importantly, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has presented major energy challenges for Italy and many other European countries. Immediately after her visit, Meloni penned an editorial in The National, an Emirati state-affiliated newspaper, addressing Rome’s need for a stronger partnership with the UAE. Lamenting Italy’s “excessive energy dependency, in particular on Russia”, the Prime Minister stressed Rome’s determination to become less exposed to international supply shocks by launching a campaign of “intense energy diplomacy” to diversify Italy’s energy sources.

Martini emphasized that the Italian Prime Minister’s comments capture the brutal reality for many European states. Italy’s overtures to the UAE are reflective of its recognition of the new state of play. “Recent evolutions in the international framework have created a suitable opening for a renewed strategic partnership between the two countries, from a political point of view as well as on other dossiers, such as energy but also food security,” she said. “This is why solving the recent bilateral spat is important to build for the future. What is more, the value of bilateral economic cooperation is certainly a point to look at when working to strengthen [ties].”

Energy and Climate Change

During Meloni’s March 4 visit to Abu Dhabi, Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of the Italian energy giant Eni, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Energy Transition Initiatives with Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s climate envoy, the COP28’s designated president, and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. (ADNOC) Managing Director and Group CEO. This MoU will drive cooperation between Eni and ADNOC, focusing on gas emissions reductions, the development of green and blue hydrogen, as well as technology geared toward capturing and storing CO2.

Martini expanded on the MoU in her conversation with the Forum. “It is an agreement which draws on Eni’s previous presence in Abu Dhabi, which dates to 2018, and which has mainly focused on hydrocarbon exploration, development, and production,” she said. “The present cooperation agreement outlines a framework for future joint projects on energy transition, sustainability and decarbonization. As such, it represents a framework of medium-long term evolution for the relationship between the two countries, but it also play an important role right now, given the UAE’s role as the organizer of the COP28 [climate summit], and in a perspective of reinforcement of both countries’ credentials in the domain of the green transition.”

This agreement highlights the “significant progress made by Italy and the UAE in reducing energy demand and decarbonizing their national energy systems,” said Francesco Salesio Schiavi, a research assistant at the Milan-based Institute for International Political Studies. Both countries, he noted, are determined to move ahead with bilateral cooperation when it comes to innovation in the energy transition: “Two initiatives have already been identified to improve the management of carbon dioxide injected into the deposits with the dual objective of increasing the recovery factor and subsequently using them for the permanent storage of CO2.”

Business, Investment, and Innovation

Recent improvements in Emirati-Italian relations reflect more than just a closer energy partnership. “Italy is among the few EU countries to fully understand the need to strengthen [their] relationships with the Arab Gulf States,” Dr. Abdulla remarked to Gulf International Forum. “Energy is an important factor, but there is more to Prime Minister Meloni’s visit to the UAE than oil. Trade, investment, space, and defense are just as important issues of discussion.”

Of all the EU member-states, Italy trades the most with the UAE. At least 600 Italian firms operate in the Gulf country, spanning sectors ranging from energy to defense and textiles to fashion. “The UAE needs to present itself as an attractive country for this type of business and investment, in order to diversify its economy and make it more dynamic,” Francesco Petronella, a journalist and geopolitical analyst at the Rome-based Treccani Institute, told the Forum.

According to Schiavi, the bilateral partnership “might evolve into new avenues for industrial cooperation, especially in critical fields for Abu Dhabi like space and innovative technologies, where Italy holds [existing programs] to the potential advantage of the UAE technology industry.”

Cooperation in North Africa

It is also critical to assess how both Italy and the UAE’s interests on the African continent factor into Abu Dhabi-Rome relations. As Meloni articulated during her official visit to Abu Dhabi, the UAE maintains the capabilities to play a “critical and very important role” in the stabilization of Libya. Concerned with migration flows emanating from the southern Mediterranean coast, Rome cannot afford to ignore the situations in Libya and Tunisia.

Mindful of the unique influence that Libya’s former colonial power maintains throughout the Mediterranean, the UAE also has an incentive to bolster its cooperation with Rome. Petronella posited that Abu Dhabi’s networks in Eastern Libya and Italy’s ongoing dialogue with the UN-backed government in Tripoli may complement each other to bring about greater stability.

Within this context, the Italian Prime Minister also addressed how Abu Dhabi can contribute to Rome’s modern “Mattei Plan” for Africa. Named after Eni’s founder, Enrico Mattei, who envisaged an energy-independent Italy, the plan has reemerged in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though vague, the initiative entails establishing Italy as one of the Mediterranean’s energy hubs while also more effectively regulating and managing the flows of migrants coming from Northern Africa. Within this context, Italy is searching for new hydrocarbon sources, and oil-rich African countries such as Algeria and Libya present ideal partners to help Italy wean itself off Russian oil and gas. Eni’s CEO recently spoke of a new “south-north axis” that would leverage Africa’s fossil fuel and renewable resources to meet the demands of European markets. As highlighted by Meloni, the UAE could play a vital role in Italy’s pursuit of the Mattei Plan, but further policy details will be required from Rome before its Gulf partner can actively participate in the initiative.

Setting past tensions aside, the post-February 2022 energy crisis has presented Rome and Abu Dhabi with a genuine opportunity to enter a new era of constructive relations. Given the world’s rapidly evolving geopolitical environment and a plethora of shared interests, Rome and Abu Dhabi may leverage their separate capabilities to address challenges and realize future gains. Meloni’s visit seems to have significantly brightened the prospects for a new era in bilateral affairs that will help both countries to leave past grievances behind.

With Meloni at the helm, the Italian government is likely to continue working to improve its relationship with the UAE through greater dialogue and bilateral cooperation. At the same time, by increasing the number of strong partnerships which the UAE fosters across the world, Abu Dhabi can obtain greater autonomy and leverage in global affairs. Within this context, fostering deeper bilateral cooperation with Italy, a G7 country with clout in the Mediterranean, would appear an obvious way of diversifying the UAE’s international relationships.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.

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